At the frontier of political thought in China

This week it seems Wan Gang, a non-CCP party member (he belongs to the nominally independent China Party for the Public Interest), became the first non-communist cabinet minister in decades. The People’s Daily noted that Wan views his appointment as an important step in the development of democracy in China.

Wan is undoubtedly being overoptimistic in his assessment of his appointment, but via the China Digital Times comes an article by Daniel Bell in Dissent on the active debate about how China will change politically.

Bell’s essay, which is rich with references, is a must-read to understand how officials and intellectuals are thinking about the future of the Chinese political system. He insists that change is only a matter of time, and that the Confucian revival — discussed here — could well provide the basis for a kind of deliberative council composed of meritocratic elites. Bell deserves credit for thinking seriously about China’s political future in a way that recognizes that the perfect should not be the enemy of the good: just because it is extremely unlikely that China will become a liberal democracy in the near future does not mean that political change that falls short of democracy should be dismissed out of hand.

This just goes to show the extent to which China’s identity, like Japan’s, is up in the air. The manner in which these two giants answer the open questions about who they are, how they should relate to their pasts, and how to ensure the best quality of life for their citizens in a time of rapid change will profoundly impact the international environment in Northeast Asia — and so rushing to condemn China’s military modernization, as Gary Schmitt does in the Washington Post, is wholly premature. (Check out Robert Economist’s reply to Schmitt here.)

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